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Voyage Report: P&O European Ferries (Irish Sea)

by Gary Andrews

7 August 1999

Jetliner: 0930 Larne - Cairnryan

Pride Of Rathlin: 1130 Cairnryan - Larne

Getting up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning is not something I decide to do lightly! So to get up at that time takes a real incentive and on this occasion there certainly was that. An excursion to Cairnryan and back including trips on the Jetliner and Pride Of Rathlin certainly makes
sacrificing a few hours sleep seem worthwhile!

Like most ferry enthusiasts, my excursions are mainly on my own; my "normal" friends usually end up spending the day moaning if they join me. However, on this occasion I was delighted to have the company of Justin Merrigan of Sea Breezes and Gary Davies of Maritime Photographic. However, given both wanted to get photos, in particular of the soon to be retired Pride Of Rathlin, the 7 a.m. mist and rain did not give much encouragement.

Having met up with my travel companions, check-in and boarding for foot passengers travelling on the 0915 sailing commenced around 0850 and was very slick.

My last crossing with P&O, by car, wasn't quite so trouble free, you may recall my writing of the boarding chaos at Larne with check-in booths not open in sufficient time prior to boarding causing a range of annoyances. I am delighted to report that following my report, P&O investigated boarding
arrangements on the day in question and whilst there were certain mitigating circumstances they have pledged to ensure that car check-in booths are open sufficiently in advance of sailing times. I have also been informed that procedures have been reviewed to ensure service is always of the highest standard. Full marks must go to P&O for taking onboard my comments and it is
reassuring that the firm takes customer service so seriously.

On boarding the Jetliner via the covered walkway from the terminal, we were taken to the Club Class lounge. P&O established an industry standard when Club Class was first introduced to the Portsmouth fleet in the mid 1980s and since then it has appeared on most of the firm's ferries and on the Jetliner standards are as high (or higher) as one would expect. Situated in an exclusive area on the deck above the main passenger deck, the lounge is truly worth the 4 supplement with very comfortably seating and complimentary coffee, tea, soft drinks and biscuits.

Promptly on arriving in the lounge we were offered and served with refreshments. We had barely started to enjoy our drinks when Stephen McCraith, Captain for our crossing and whom we had spoken to in the terminal, arrived and invited us to join him on the bridge for our departure
from Larne.

Captain McCraith has been with the Jetliner from "day 1" and was master during my first crossing on the vessel in June 1996. Prior to joining P&O he served aboard the Stena Antrim.

Departure from Larne was smooth and before long we were making good progress, passing the European Trader at anchor off the Larne coast and the European Navigator enroute to Larne from Cairnryan. The bridge of the Jetliner is quite large, perhaps huge, compared to some fast ferries and
certainly comparable to the bridge of many conventional vessels. Situated quite far forward at the highest level of the vessel and with no accommodation aft of it, complete 360 degree vision is possible. The vessel lacks the "goldfish bowl" bridge viewing area present on many fast ferries something that perhaps some passengers may miss but I have always wondered whether it is the sort of thing that could cause panic. A minor alarm to a ferry crew may not be seen as such by the casual traveller.

Watching Captain McCraith and his crew it was obvious why the Jetliner has managed to turn around her technical record. The Jetliner has an experienced crew who clearly know the ship perfectly, they know exactly when and where to increase speed or decrease speed, there is a complete understanding of her operation. The Jetliner's first year on the Larne - Cairnryan route was
a well-documented difficult affair with a string of prolonged problems. However, those problems would appear to be long in the past and arguably of the fast ferries on Northern Ireland routes now has about the best technical record, especially when compared to the Stena Voyager. The past year has seen very few technical cancellations for the Jetliner with any cancellations generally being due to poor weather, when usually the Stena and Sea Containers' vessels were also out of action.

Captain McCraith very generously gave us a full tour of the Jetliner. In many ways the Jetliner is built like a conventional ferry, with a very traditional layout, e.g. normal engine room, normal stairways etc. Amongst the non-passenger accommodation there is a ships office, a large crew mess,
a ships' hospital and a large storeroom. It is rare that a fast ferry has such an amount of non-passenger accommodation.

An almost full car deck was incredibly clean with most of the mezzanine decks in use to accommodate an almost full load of cars and with the car deck able to accommodate coaches and several coaches were onboard during our crossing. A visit to the engine room and sewage plant revealed possibly the cleanest vessel I have ever visited. I think that, possibly unfairly, one
doesn't see fast ferry crews as caring as much about their vessel as conventional ferry crews with most fast ferry crewmembers going home each day. However, given the standard of the Jetliner I have to say I'd no longer make this assumption.

Perhaps most importantly, the passenger accommodation (despite being pretty much untouched since entering service) is also still in great condition. The vessel was only 20 passengers off it's capacity of 600 passengers yet it has to be said that there was nobody sitting in aisles or stairs - even a few empty seats could be seen - something that is very impressive in my opinion. I think it is the first time I've ever seen a ferry so close to capacity that didn't resemble a crowd waiting to be given a free car! Indeed on reflection of my trip on the Jetliner I feel this is possibly the most impressive element of my trip. Whilst one hears that ferry companies have a "seat for every passenger" rarely does this in reality turn out to be the case on busy sailings.

The bar, self service cafeteria, shop and children's play area appeared to be well used by passengers, including a number taking the benefit of the fast crossing to travel to afternoon football games in Scotland.

By the time our tour was complete it was time to join Stephen McCraith as he took the vessel along Loch Ryan on its approach to Cairnryan. The HSS passed us a little from Cairnryan, enroute to Belfast, and seeing the wash of the vessel, one is left in little doubt that many of the concerns raised about Stena's fast ferries, may have at least some substance.

We were soon skilfully berthed at Cairnryan's number 2 berth, the Pride Of Rathlin occupying the number 1 (twin deck) linkspan. Leaving the Jetliner and thanking Captain McCraith I was firmly of the belief that there is no competition in terms of fast ferry routes. P&O's 60-minute crossing is perfect for those that want to get to Scotland as quickly as possible. With the Jetliner's current charter due to expire in June 2000 there are many rumours of an Austal craft like the Superstar Express or Jonathan Swift replacing her. It remains to be seen what P&O have planned for the Larne - Cairnryan operation for the future; however, the current fast ferry has now proved herself and no longer would one have grounds for doubting her suitability for the crossing.

Steeping off the Jetliner the rain and mist had pretty much cleared and indeed by the time we were half way back to Larne had cleared entirely, opening the door to photographic opportunities. Whilst Cairnryan port is still very much "Atlantic Steam Navigation" the planned re-development of
the port over the next year will change all that.

Checking in for the 1130 Pride Of Rathlin sailing around 1045 it was not long before we were onboard. They say every ferry enthusiast has a vessel they feel at home with, Stena having moved my old "home" of the Stena Galloway to Belfast, the 'Rathlin for many years has been very much a vessel that feels like a "home from home". Looking around the accommodation it always a joy to see what is such a traditional vessel. With comfortable airline style seating (including reclining seats taken when the Pride Of Suffolk and Pride Of Flanders, were returned to ro-ro vessels) good solid facilities (bar, shop, self-service restaurant, video lounge), and a friendly crew she is to my mind all a tired traveller could wish for. The Club Class lounge, which is now generally closed, has got to rank amongst the finest lounges on any ferry.

We were invited to the bridge for departure. Al Sodhi was master and made us feel very welcome offering to answer any questions or give us any assistance we needed. I have to admit to it feeling very strange sailing from Cairnryan and Eddie Irvine not being Captain as it seems every crossing I've made in the past 18 months or so on the Pride Of Rathlin Captain Irvine was master! However, Captain Sodhi could not have made us feel more welcome and like his colleagues has an obvious pride of the 'Rathlin.

Sailing very slightly late, Captain Sodhi made good progress and very soon we were leaving Loch Ryan. We wished to get photographs of the Jetliner at sea so we decided on having lunch early in the crossing.

The self-service cafeteria of the Pride Of Rathlin is very 1970s. That is what is so good! Hot, tasty food, good portions and reasonable prices, what more can one wish for? The lasagne I opted for was excellent and the fish and chips also looked very good. I find it hard to believe that the
re-heated food or fast food of a certain other ferry company can compare to a decent well-cooked meal such as I enjoyed. Talking to a few of the restaurant staff it was obvious it isn't only the 'Rathlin's officers that are proud of the "old girl" though many looked forward to the opportunities
brought by the ro-pax ferry which will replace the Rathlin in June 2000.

Having been asked by Captain Sohdi the officer of the watch ensured that our course took us as close as possible to the Jetliner, allowing reasonable photographs. We also got pictures of the SeaCat Scotland passing us bound for Belfast, enroute from Troon.

All too soon it was around 1345 and we were arriving at P&O's Continental Quay berth and leaving Captain Sodhi and the Pride Of Rathlin. The European Navigator was seen at MacKean Quay and the European Highlander at Curran Quay.

The Pride Of Rathlin is now in her final year of P&O service. Her withdrawal will not only mark the end of the Free Enterprise vessels in UK waters, but (with the possible exception of the Lady Of Mann) will mark an end to a style of travel. Travelling onboard the Rathlin you know you are on a real ferry, not a shopping complex or hotel foyer, the 'Rathlin dates from a time when giving passengers what they needed outweighed trying to make as much in onboard sales as possible. It would be easy for the ferry enthusiast to get emotional about such vessels at the expense of economic and operational reality. However, I would hope that in the new Larne - Cairnryan ro-pax, P&O will incorporate the best elements of the 'Rathlin - i.e. good solid facilities and comfortable seating rather than some kind of floating "leisure place".

I had a wonderful trip with P&O and on the basis of my trips I'd have to recommend the Larne - Cairnryan route as "THE" way to travel to/from Scotland.


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